The Amesbury Full-Court 2-2-1 Zone Defense

I sat down with Matt Willis who is the girls coach at Amesbury High School a little over a week ago. Matt and the Amesbury girls team had a historically great season with a Cape Ann League division title and also won the Division 3 North championship. I have had the opportunity to watch Amesbury a few times over Matt’s two seasons there and have been especially impressed with the 2-2-1 full court zone that they play. Here were Matt’s thoughts on their 2-2-1 zone as well as some other thoughts on junk defenses, beating help defenses, getting players to accept and embrace their roles, and the structure of practices.

2-2-1 Full Court Zone

Coach Willis said their primary goal with the 2-2-1 was for the opponent to take up time. If they could force a turnover, that was gravy, but by putting an opponent in a position where they had to make several passes just to get the ball up court their opponent would now have only 18 seconds to get a shot up against their half-court defense as opposed to 25 seconds if they were not putting any pressure on. A second outcome of a successful 2-2-1 is that more often than not, the oppositions primary play maker does not end up with the ball by the time the opponent is in the half-court offense. Everything that a team was accustomed to doing was thrown out the window because the goal of the team became advancing the ball in any way shape or form – not to advance the ball in an optimal way for their personnel.

In terms of how the X’s operate in this defense, Coach Willis said the most important players are the middle 2 in the 2-2-1. It was their job to deny middle once the ball was clearly established on a side of the court. For the player that was not covering the middle, the other player in the back part of the 2-2-1 alignment needed to remain patient and trap only the trapping spot right over half court. By leaving too soon to trap the ball, that player would be leaving a pass wide open, and not only would the trap never occur, but the opposition would be in prime position to turn their aggressiveness against them.

The front part of the 2-2-1 had the responsibility of not allowing the ball to get entered into the middle. This required them to really push forward – often times well above the free throw line. Once the ball was in play though, these two front line players could slack off the ball. Coach Willis did not stress ball pressure. He knew how opponents would beat their pressure and as his stated goal said, he did not particularly mind since teams had to take time to get it over. The guards allowed horizontal passes back to the inbounder and horizontal passes that reversed the ball to the other guard. He even said that once the reversal happened they were content to give up on the thought of trapping and just get back and play good half-court defense. One of the primary challenges occurred with the guards coming so far forward that there was real estate between the two front players and the two back players in this zone. Amesbury worked on this consistently at practice. Of course for the pass to fit in this pocket of space the inbounder would need to throw a lob pass so the back line of the zone would hunt for those passes to get deflections and often turnovers.

Junk Defenses 

Coach Willis is a football coach, and similar to Bill Belichick he has told me several times that he believes in taking away a team’s best and or second best options for scoring. To accomplish this, Coach Willis loves to use junk defenses such as a box and one or a triangle and two.

In the box and one, he will go to a diamond and one if the other four players are generally better shooters and go to a box and one if they are players that look to score inside. He will also look to double team some players that are especially stubborn when it comes to giving up the ball or getting their shots. In essence for these players he goes to a triangle and two with the three players now covering four players and two players trapping the ball if that scorer has possession. He elaborated further upon this by explaining what opponent he played in the recent past by stating that the coach was asking the player to make better decisions, but the player was going to get her shots regardless. These shots inevitably were not very good given the amount of pressure that the player was under and as she recognized the pressure she only sped up her game and rushed her shots more.

He will also employ a Triangle and two for teams that feature dual threats. Depending again on the strengths of the other players on the floor, Amesbury could have two players up top in the zone and one player low versus teams that rely on the outside shot or invert that with one player outside and two players starting inside for teams that score inside. In either alignment, the assignments are essentially the same once the ball is moved into the corner or wing. The player that was low goes out to the corner, one player will rotate to the strong side block, and one player will rotate to the strong side elbow. A key point that he shared regarding his junk defense versus other junk defenses that get used is that he tended to have his best defender stay out of the coverage of the other team’s best player. He rationalized this by saying that face guarding a player and shadowing her every move does not take much beyond instincts and athleticism. On the other hand the rotations of the zone, boxing out in the zone, and determining when to help on the players that were playing the opposition’s stars were a bit more challenging from a basketball IQ standpoint. There is the obvious caveat to this type of system that if it were easy for a weaker defender to stay with the opposing team’s best player that that player is not very good to begin with, but in general I like Coach Willis’ point about the level of thinking that goes into that assignment being easier.

Offensive Set vs Help Defense

In order to curtail help defenses, Coach Willis introduced me to a relatively simple offense. It can start in a 3-2 arrangement (guards on the perimeter and forwards on the blocks) or a four high arrangement with the guards on the wings. The guards v-cut or could even invert with the forwards and come off a pin-down screen. From there, the guards dribble toward the top of the key as the point guards comes off a flare screen from the weak-side forward and the opposite wing fills to the vacated wing or corner from the wing that now possesses the ball. In order to occupy help and to get that wing more open, the strong side forward sets a screen on the baseline. Forwards can easily slip and seal in this set if either the point guard or the wing that is coming off the screen are respectable shooters. It also gets every player moving and makes it hard for teams to adjust to what they need to do from a help standpoint. Coach Willis did admit that girls won’t necessarily love it, but it is a way to guarantee a player that you like to be in good position to either attack or shoot.


Coach Willis and I talked a good deal about players and their roles. Nothing is more important than making sure players recognize their roles early in the season. He told me that one of his players was having an awful shooting game and when he talked to her at halftime, all she said was “I’ll make my next one.” It was right out of the John Havlicek school of thought, and just like Havlicek that player shot extremely well in the second half. He never got on players for not making plays that they typically make in other words. At the same time, he will not hesitate to be honest with players that are wondering why they are not playing more minutes. The reason is common sense – the other player is simply better. In general this type of conversation is rare, he said he does not encounter much resistance to the decisions that he makes because players value their role regardless of if it is to shoot or to make teammates better at practice. Players do not want to be put in situations where they could potentially be embarrassed because they are young. He also does not want to put players in a position where they potentially would be embarrassed for that same reason.

None of this is to say that he does not value the contributions that players make if they do not get high playing time. At Amesbury, the one award they give from game to game is a Scout Team Player of the Game. As he put it, if someone is not working the best player to be the best that she could be, it becomes awfully difficult for anyone to get better. Coach Willis also writes a letter to each player before games to recognize their work ethic and the intangibles that they bring to make the team what it is.

Practice Structure

The entire Amesbury basketball practice can be summed up with one word: competition. They will not do zig zags, three man weaves, or gimmick box out drills because those situations do not occur in the flow of a basketball game. Coach Willis typically matches up players against the teammates that will force them to work the hardest. He also tries to light fires under his players and reinforce the competitive culture that he is promoting. When a team loses a drill, Coach Willis does not want to hear anything about the idea of “run as a team.” The team that lost should run and the team that won should watch them run. That is part of what makes the competition.

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